Children with focusing concerns happen to share a big time problem with their parents--high levels of frustration. While most children hope to succeed in classes at school or when relating with peers, the academic and social realms are not easy for kids with focusing problems. In fact, school and friends become fronts for losing battles for many distracted children.
As frustrating as life is for the distractible child, it can be even more challenging for their parents and teachers. As I wrote in my latest book, Liking the Child You Love (2009), what complicates matters is that parents get toxic thoughts [e.,g., "She is just lazy" (toxic thought) versus "She is truly spinning her wheels, stuck and stuggling." (empathetic, and more realistc thought)]. Sadly, parents with Parent Frustratrion Syndrome or some approximation of it react harshly to a distracted child. That child usually becomes even more distractible. Talk about a destructive cycle of distractibility! To help these children, it is crucial that parents learn to understand and manage their own frustrations as well as those of their distracted child. Distractibility problems in kids can have more than one cause and the most common reasons are listed below.
What Causes Distractibility in Children?
Distractibility in children can be the result of one or any combination of several sources, including:
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Learning Disabilities
Major life changes (e.g., divorce, relocation)
High levels of day to day stress
Despite the cause of the distractibility, the end result is that distracted children end up with crushed self-esteem.
Bolstering Self-Esteem in Kids with Focusing Problems
Parents and teachers have a right to feel frustrated when managing distracted children. At the same time, telling a distracted child that if s/he cannot pay attention s/he may fail or be expelled from school, however, almost never helps the child improve. Worse, this is more likely to create feelings of inadequacy and shame. A strategy more likely to succeed would be to explain that you are proud of how hard your child has worked to achieve success, even though he has been challenged with distractibility.
How can we further bolster a distracted child's ability to cope inside and outside the home with frustration and the feelings of anger, despair or self-doubt that often accompany their focusing problems? Some further strategies are below.
Remember that the distraction prone child is struggling with feelings of inadequacy. It is of utmost importance that parents are empathetic with their frustrated children. These kids need extra doses of understanding and encouragement to stay motivated. You may say something like, "I realize you're frustrated about getting this done. How can we make some progress? Sometimes just hearing this will help distracted kids.
Be calm, firm, and non-controlling.
Avoid yelling. Yelling is really just an adult temper tantrum that only clouds your child's mind, making him more distractible. Keeping your cool, stating clear expectations, and trying not to command these children is the formula for success.
Get to the bottom of the problem
Remember that your child is not being bad when he or she is frustrated. The true reason for the angst and possible tears is that she is struggling with a task that is beyond her resources at the moment. Stay tuned into the frustration and remember what it is that makes your child find homework hard to do. This is much more productive and healthy than just viewing your child as "lazy." Keep asking questions to determine, for example, whether your son is frustrated because he doesn't understand the parts of the sentence or because he wants to call a friend. Try to discern how much your child learned the material in school and what is it about this problem that's too hard. Once you identify that there's a problem area or skill deficit, you can work on that or involve the teacher to help re-teach the material.
Don't wait for the drama and tears.
Focus on the first signs of a meltdown and intervene early in the sequence of events. Does your daughter fidget, stare into space or seem reluctant to begin the work in the first place? Pay attention to those moments before you just mutter, "Oh no, here we go again..."
Break down big problems into smaller ones
This strategy is usually overlooked and underused. Distracted kids will feel more motivated by small successes versus big failures. Your child might need a break, or some help turning a big project into a series of small jobs. Kids may need an adult to supply the structure. Parents who see themselves as distractibility management coaches really help the situation. For example, saying "Yes, this problem is a tough one, but let's see what we can do. Let's do one question together, then you try the second and I'll be right here at the counter paying some bills if you need me." Modeling calm attention to a task often has a calming impact on kids.
Help your child get into the habit of keeping a to-do list. It's very reinforcing to be able to cross tasks off a list.
Draw on past successes.
If your son is frustrated at not being able to get a hit on the baseball field, remind your child of the time he learned to do a new trick on the skateboard and ask, "What worked for you then? You're reminding him of a time when he did do well and encouraging him to use the same strategies in this new situation."
Focus on the present.
Rewards down the road don't work so well for easily frustrated kids. Something more immediate needs to happen. A colorful new sticker when she completes a math problem might encourage your young daughter to go on to the next. Avoid making the outcome or incentive too big or long-term. Saying in October, "You can get a new bike this summer if you get your homework done more often," is a reward that is too distant in the future.
Keep proactive and open communication with your child's teachers.
Distracted children tend to shut down quickly when they encounter obstacles. The great news, however, is that you can help your child resist sinking and keep on swimming if you stay active and involved.
Remember to be a helper but not an enabler.
Doing too much to help your child to finish a difficult assignment may feel good to her, but it's not good for her. Remember that distracted children are often surrounded with negativity and begin to expect failure. Amidst their considerable challenges, it is easy for distracted children to feel that they are often in trouble and inferior to their peers. Let your child know that in addition to loving him that you believe in him.
As much as you may hope your distracted child will outgrow her distractibility down the road, it is far from certain. For some children, the symptoms get better as they grow older and learn to adjust. Others, because of their genetics, may demonstrate continued tendencies toward distraction. Just keep in mind that the distractible children with the best chance of becoming well-adjusted adults are those who have loving, supportive parents who work together with school staff, mental health workers, and their healthcare provider (when needed).
Theses proven tips for helping distracted children are presented in, 10 Days to a Less Distracted Child : The Breakthrough Program that Gets Your Kids to Listen, Learn, Focus and Behave (2007) by Jeffrey Bernstein, Ph.D.
Also see Liking The Child You Love (2009) by Jeffrey Bernstein, Ph.D.
Dr. Bernstein works with children, couples, and families. His website is www.Drjeffonline.com
Concentration is like a muscle that requires regular exercise to strengthen. Some kids are born “stronger” in this area than others, but all kids can learn strategies and engage in practices that help improve their ability to focus and sustain their attention. This is, after all, a very important skill for kids to acquire—school demands that students concentrate for long stretches of time, and as kids get older they have extracurricular activities after school that require even more concentration. Most children are able to concentrate on activities that are fun and intrinsically enjoyable. It’s the ones that are more boring, difficult or just less enjoyable that really challenge their focus. Yet this ability to concentrate and sustain attention on all kinds of tasks is crucially important, because it helps kids learn and improve, which leads to self-confidence and positive self-esteem.
Concentration is a lot like mindfulness, a concept that has been receiving quite a bit of attention lately in psychology and in popular culture. Mindfulness is basically the ability to pay attention to one thing in the moment, and it has been shown to have innumerable mental health benefits, from increased happiness and stress management to improved academic and test performance. For mindfulness to work, you have to focus.
Here are some tips to help your kids build their concentration muscles:
- Set aside a reasonable amount of time for your child to practice focusing on a specific task. Young children (age 4-5) can usually concentrate for somewhere between 5 and 20 minutes, depending on the task—less time with novel and challenging tasks, and more time with those intrinsically enjoyable activities.
- Do one thing at a time. We may praise the ability to multitask in our adult lives, but the research is clear: multitasking reduces concentration and diminishes our performance. In line with the concept of mindfulness, do one thing at a time in this one moment. For very young children, you might simply sing the alphabet together while looking at the letters. For children who are a little older, say 4th grade, you can complete one long division problem at a time together. Don’t look ahead at all the other problems, just focus on one at a time.
- Set aside homework time and space. Because multitasking impairs concentration, it’s important to reduce extraneous distractions. For example, do homework at a designated desk or table in a quiet room with the TV off, the phone in another room, and the laptop shut unless it’s needed to complete a homework assignment. Parental monitoring programs can automatically shut down Internet access after a set amount of use. As kids get older, parents can shift to using self-monitoring software so teens can independently manage their time. This way kids don’t get sucked into a time vortex on Instagram or Snapchat.
- Build in planned breaks. Kids need to get up, move around, and do something different and not too taxing after spending some time concentrating. They will benefit from taking some time to rest and recharge, especially during after-school homework time. Younger children can take a snack or play break, and teens can take the opportunity to check out their friends’ posts or text with peers.
- Practice belly breathing. Steady, diaphragmatic breathing slows our heart rate and clears our mind so we can concentrate. This is an important skill for kids to have when they’re confronted with challenging tasks, which can make them anxious and spike their heart rate. Anxiety leads to avoidance, the opposite of concentration. So finding ways to make tasks more approachable is important, and calming the body is one of those strategies.
- Break big tasks down into smaller, more manageable pieces. This is another strategy for helping children to approach a challenging task. If your child is learning to tie her shoes, make the first goal to master the initial knot, then move on to making two loops with the strings until she knows exactly how to do that, and so forth. Another “piecemeal” strategy for building concentration is to use a timer to help kids organize themselves, e.g., “Here’s a book about horses. I’m going to set this timer for 15 minutes, and I want you to write down as many facts about horses as you can in this time.”
- Practice observing things in the moment. Kids can be distracted by “internal stimuli,” like physical sensations or entertaining memories. While a child’s imagination is a wonderful thing, we also want them to be able to clear away distractions and build the ability to concentrate. You can play “I spy with my little eye…” and take turns making observations of various objects in the room, listen closely to the lyrics of a song together, or do some yoga poses and pay attention to how it feels in the body.